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Hollywood is mourning the death of Melvin Van Peebles, an acclaimed filmmaker who is best known as the “godfather of Black cinema.”
His son actor/director Mario Van Peebles confirmed the news in a statement to Variety on Wednesday, just a month after Melvin Van Peebles turned 89.
“Dad knew that Black images matter,” Mario said in a statement from the Criterion Collection. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth? We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”
Melvin Van Peebles began writing and directing short films in the 1950s, and went on to release his first full-length feature, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, in 1967. That project caught the attention of Columbia Pictures, which tapped the Chicago native to helm 1970’s Watermelon Man. According to Variety, the studio had subsequently offered Melvin Van Peebles a three-picture contract; however, he rejected the deal after Columbia refused to finance his next project, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which he released independently.
“It’s a revolutionary film,” he told BlackFilm back in 2006. “What happened when Sweetback made all that money, the studios were in a very difficult position. They wanted the money, but they didn’t the message. This marked the advent of the caricatures which became known as blaxploitation. Hollywood realized that they were totally unfamiliar with black vernacular, so they had to hire some black people which meant the beginning of some job opportunities to do the costumes, the sets, etcetera. And now we’re slowly beginning to see some of the fruits of that.”
Melvin Van Peebles would continue to work in the industry over the following decades, amassing a slew of directing, writing, and acting credits as well as multiple awards, including a Daytime Emmy, a Chicago Underground Film Festival Award, as well as an NAACP Image Award.
Black Hollywood has since taken to social media to pay tribute to Melvin Van Peebles and the indelible mark he left on the industry. You can read some of the messages below.